Dominic Barton, a former ambassador and past director of consulting firm McKinsey, said on Wednesday he had no involvement in federal government contracts awarded to the firm in recent years and denied having any close relationship with the prime minister or other key Liberal cabinet members.
Barton was grilled by the House of Commons government operations and estimates committee that is studying the 24 contracts worth $104.6 million that federal officials say have been awarded to McKinsey since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was elected in 2015.
But Barton was unable to answer many members’ questions about the contracts and what specific services were provided for that money, saying his focus as director was not on individual contracts but on the global firm as a whole.
“I’ve never been involved in a contract,” he said, pointing to his relocation to Asia in 1996.
“There are 3,000 client engagements going on every given day. That’s not what I’m involved in.”
McKinsey’s contracts with the federal government have come under scrutiny following recent media reports that the deals have increased under the Liberals compared with when the federal Conservatives were in power.
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That has put Barton under the microscope as well. He chaired the government’s advisory council on economic growth in 2017 — while still leading McKinsey — and was later named Canada’s ambassador to China in 2019 after leaving the firm, a role he held until 2021.
But Barton pushed back on MP’s suggestions that he is a personal friend of Trudeau or other top ministers like Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and former finance minister Bill Morneau, with whom Barton on the growth council.
“It was a professional relationship, there was respect, there were always people in the room,” he told the committee after flattering comments from Trudeau, Freeland and Morneau about him were read into the record.
“I am not a friend.”
He later expressed disbelief that he was being portrayed as a “puppet” of the Liberal government, saying he simply wanted to “give back” and “help” his country after living in Asia for decades.
He stressed in his opening statement that he is “not a partisan advisor” — a remark he repeated in French — and does not support any political party.
Barton also served on a public service advisory council under Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper.
The committee is also reviewing contracts awarded to the firm since 2011, which includes those signed by the preceding Conservative government.
Radio-Canada reported that the Conservatives awarded $2.2 million in contracts to McKinsey over the nine years that party was in power.
Global News has not independently verified the Radio-Canada report but has confirmed the total value of the awards given to McKinsey is $104.6 million, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada.
Following the reports, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre called for a probe into the jump in contracts awarded to the firm, a call the government operations and estimates committee answered when it voted to launch the study on Jan. 18.
“We want to know what all this money was for,” Poilievre said, speaking at a press conference earlier last month.
Purdue connections scrutinized
Barton was also pressed by committee members on McKinsey’s 15-year relationship with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and a key contributor to the opioid crisis. The firm agreed in 2021 to pay US$573 million in settlements to nearly all 50 states for its role in consulting Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies on how to sell more of its products.
Barton said he was not aware of Purdue’s activities and even indicated he did not know the company was a client until after he left McKinsey, prompting disbelief from Conservative MP Garnett Genuis.
“They were your client for 15 years, and you had no idea they were a client? Do you know any of your clients?” Genuis asked.
“I don’t know all of them,” Barton replied, adding it was “totally normal” for someone in his position to not have intimate knowledge of the firm’s inner workings.
“Bluntly, sir, I just don’t believe you,” Genuis later shot back.
Barton later highlighted the “values-driven, principled” work McKinsey has done in other areas including tackling ebola in Africa, the development of COVID-19 vaccines and personal protective equipment during the pandemic, and youth employment.
“Your definition of McKinsey is an extreme view,” he told Genuis, who also brought up the firm’s work with the government of Saudi Arabia.
Barton said organizations outside government have been using consultants more in recent years, including in the private and social sectors.
He said it makes sense for the committee to look at the federal government’s use of consultants, but he wasn’t sure why McKinsey was being singled out.
“I think this committee is good to look at the impact and what people are doing,” he said. “I don’t know why McKinsey is the only focus.”
According to the statement from Public Services and Procurement Canada, three of the contracts — worth a total of $55.8 million — awarded to McKinsey were granted as a result of a competitive process.
The other 21 contracts, worth more than $48 million, were not awarded through competitions.
Of those, the department said 19 were conducted through “call ups,” a process that allows government to quickly procure a good or service when it has a standing offer in place with the company. The other two were sole-sourced — one being a low-dollar-value contract, and the other worth zero dollars.
Barton said it was also common for McKinsey and other consulting firms to do pro bono work for the government and other clients, but added such work would not put McKinsey in a better position to win a lucrative contract.
“Just because you know someone doesn’t mean you’ll get the work,” he said. “It’s not about a relationship. You have to follow the criteria that’s set (for each individual contract).”
The NDP is hoping to see the committee expand its study of federal contracts awarded to McKinsey & Company and include other consulting firms that have received large contracts.
New Democrat MP Gord Johns is bringing forward a motion to expand the scope of the study to include other firms including Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture, KPMG and Ernst & Young.
A researcher testifying before the committee on Monday called the focus on McKinsey a distraction.
Amanda Clarke, an associate professor of public administration at Carleton University, said the study should focus on the public service’s reliance on consulting firms overall.
“The focus on outsourcing and contracting in the federal government is the broad enough umbrella to get at these issues and any given firm,” Clarke said.
—With files from the Canadian Press